Supreme Court hears petition case from Jefferson Co.

September 09, 2010

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- Members of West Virginia's Supreme Court cited a recent ruling from the nation's highest court during Wednesday arguments over the Jefferson County clerk's refusal to release petition drive signatures.

June's near-unanimous decision allowed the release of petition signatures in Washington state.

Several of the West Virginia justices also referred to a state law that considers any records kept by a county commission as public.

Jefferson County's petition put a referendum on the 2009 ballot to replace that county's zoning ordinance. It was defeated.

The Observer of Shepherdstown sought the signatures under the state's Freedom of Information Act. The monthly newspaper appealed after Circuit Judge David Sanders sided last year with Clerk Jennifer Maghan, who argues that they were not created by a public body.

Lawyer Stephanie Grove, representing Maghan, maintained that position Wednesday. She likened these signatures to actual election ballots, which are secret. Grove also questioned whether June's decision should be applied to the newspaper's appeal.


But Stephen Skinner, a lawyer for The Observer, noted that the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that disclosing ballot petition signatures helps preserve the integrity of the election process. The ruling held that promoting transparency and accountability trumps concerns that disclosure chills the speech rights of petition signers.

Maghan had argued otherwise, and Sanders agreed. Several of the justices appeared to question that Wednesday, given the June decision.

Chief Justice Robin Davis asked whether the U.S. Supreme Court ruling conflicts with her court's decision last year rejecting The Associated Press' 2008 FOIA requests for a then-justice's e-mails.

Patrick McGinley, a lawyer for The Observer who represented AP in that case, said he saw no conflict. Grove said she was unfamiliar with the state Supreme Court's opinion.

"You'd better go back and read it," Davis told her.

A ruling on The Observer's appeal is expected by year's end.

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